Do we need to gender-label children’s books?

Is your book for boys or girls?

girl-1176165_1920I am currently preparing two children’s books for publication and one of the questions I am often asked is “Who are they for?” My answer is that they are for children (aged 7 plus if we have to be more specific, but I’d rather let the reader decide if I’m honest). I am then pressed on this. “Yes, but are they for boys or girls?”

 

This question perplexed me the first time I was asked it. I had never thought in these terms (perhaps very naively as most other things for children – clothes, toys, TV shows – are marketed very clearly for one gender or the other). I wanted to say, “Let the child decide”, but of course it’s not as simple as that. One of my books stars a ten-year-old girl and the other a thirteen-year-old boy. I imagine, therefore, that the assumption will be made that one is for girls and the other for boys. But is it necessary to label books in this way?

A boy who read books about girls and liked ‘My Little Pony’

I certainly did not think in this way about books as a child and I read books with both girls and boys as the lead characters (as well as books with giants, jungle animals and talking mice as lead characters!). I enjoyed ‘When Hitler stole pink rabbit’ (which even had a pink cover) as much as I did ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’ – both very different books anyway even if you ignore the gender of the lead character. My reading experience was much richer for that. I believe it also helped my development of empathy and understanding of other people.

 

my-little-pony-468916_960_720At an even younger age, I didn’t even think in terms of gender regarding toys and I owned two ‘My Little Pony’ figures as a toddler. They were given to me by my late grandmother for Christmas when I was about 18 months old. I am told I had mithered (to use the northern English dialect term which Grandma would no doubt have used) for these bright pink and purple equines and that my mother had suggested to my grandmother (who had no idea what 1980’s children might be into) that she might get them for me.

 

They remained a staple in my toy box until about the age of four when I gave them to a girl who lived up the road. I don’t know whether I did so because I was being made aware at primary school and by other children that these weren’t for me or whether I grew tired of them. But, it is clear that gender labels meant nothing to me at a young age.

‘Let Books be Books’

child-316510_960_720I was pleased, therefore to be directed recently by a friend to ‘Let Books be Books’, a campaign led by the organisation ‘Let Toys be Toys’. They believe that marketing books as being for girls or boys is limiting and restrictive. They even state on their website that such “artificial boundaries turn children away from their true preferences, and provide a fertile ground for bullying”. They are currently running a petition asking publishers of children’s books to stop marketing books in this way and have already had agreement from a few big names, such as Usborne, Scholastic and Ladybird.

 

Yet many people would argue that it is simply a case of helping parents, carers, relatives, etc. find appropriate books for children. Some may even argue that in helping adults and children to find new books it encourages reading. While I do sympathise with that argument, I do agree with the ‘Let Books be Books’ campaign that such labels can narrow children’s horizons. This in turn could discourage children’s imaginations and restrict their learning. Instead, we should think about what books to give to children based on their interests and reading level.

Over to you

So what do you think about the marketing of children’s books by gender? Is it harmful and restrictive or is it a helpful way to help adults and children find new books and encourage reading? Do let me know in the comments section below.

 

My first book for children, ‘Holly Watson and the furry thieves’ (which stars a girl in case you were wondering), will be available to buy from Wednesday 11th May. Sign up to my mailing list to be among the first to hear about its release.

2 thoughts on “Do we need to gender-label children’s books?

  1. Hi Barford – I do agree that there’s no need to label books and I certainly don’t write for one gender or another. It was therefore as a pleasant surprise when I launched my time travel adventure (and consistent bestseller) The Secret Lake back in 2011 and was told in a review from the ex Head Reader for Puffin UK that she loved the fact that it was a book that would appeal to both boys and girls of around 8-10 yrs in equal measure, imply that that this was (at least back then…) apparently relatively unusual. That aspect of writing for children hadn’t occurred to me at that time as I’d just written from the heart the kind of story I knew I’d have enjoyed as a child – which is what I always do.

    What I do think is useful to make clear, however, is where books are likely to appeal to reluctant readers and especially boys who need a lot of persuading to pick up a book. My book Eeek! The Runaway Alien has been praised by teachers, charities and LoveReading4Kids as being as great for this market and I remember LoveReading4Kids telling me that they had been criticised for having a section called ‘Books for Boys’ but they still stand by it. (Julia Eccleshare is on their team btw.) Having had one boy who was and still is an avid reader (he read Lord of the Rings at age 9 and is writing today) and who one has hardly ever picked up a book I’ve seen both sides of the coin and as a parent I think I would have found it useful to know if a book is likely to appeal to reluctant boy (or indeed girl) readers. As well as being fun and fast-paced, Eeek! has a football theme – and I was inspired to write it to encourage my older son (then 9 I think) to find time to read. At that time the ‘great for reluctant boys’ connection was possibly more obvious as far fewer girls were playing soccer at school. Perhaps now I should be thinking of it more in terms of reluctant reader boys and girls who love soccer! I don’t think this cuts across what you’re saying though – rather it complements it.

    Back on boys, my latest book, Walter Brown and the Magician’s Hat — out today — is I think a good example of one that will appeal to reluctant boys readers in particular *as well as all readers* and I’m likely to make this point from time to time in various marketing messages. The reason I say this is that much of it hinges around three boys playing video games and magical mayhem that follows when Walter Brown tries to play a magic trick on them to impress them. Girls will enjoy it too, of course, but I did have boys in the back of my mind as I wrote since many of the scenes were conjured up (excuse the pun!) based on my boys playing video games with their friends – and many young boys will identify with this. There is a big sister and main female cat character in the book for balance though. As ever I tend to write about what I know and that comes from the heart, so by default there is a bit of a boy tendency in my books!

    Best of luck with your book launch tomorrow – I’ll look out for a tweet to RT! Karen

  2. Thanks for the comments, Karen. I do agree that it’s useful to know which types of reader a book would suit so parents, carers, teachers, etc. can pick appropriate books that will encourage reading (the wrong kind of book can really put kids off reading sadly). I think the key thing is, as you say, suggesting the type of reader a book would be particularly suitable for, rather than using hard and fast labels like ‘Books for boys’ or ‘Books for girls’. All the best with Walter Brown.

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